TODD AARON GOLDEN: Beware of the desperation phase of conference realignment

Springfield (Mo.)News-Leader file

Gang tackle: Indiana State running back Matt Sora is tackled by a pair of Missouri State Bears as ISU tight end Zach Larkin arrives on the scene during a 37-7 loss to Missouri State on Oct. 16 at Plaster Stadium.

One thing I learned from the last round of conference realignment from the early 2010s is that is has three phases.

The first phase is when the big dogs, i.e. the Power Five, eat their own, shift bodies around, and invite a select few to join their ranks. Like clockwork, Oklahoma and Texas's jump to the Southeastern Conference, triggered the vulnerable Big 12 to gobble up American Athletic Conference schools Central Florida, Cincinnati, Houston and FBS football independent BYU to join their ranks.

Phase two is when the middling FBS conferences grab on to the nearest life raft they can find to survive. The AAC snared Florida Atlantic, Rice, Texas-San Antonio, Charlotte, North Texas and UAB from Conference USA to stay above water.

The third phase is the desperation phase. This is when the dregs of FBS grab whatever school they can get to survive. And this phase is the one that starts to hit close to home.

If you haven't been paying attention, C-USA is the slow gazelle that the lion's above them have feasted upon. And even some of their own gazelles have come in for a bite too.

C-USA is down to five left-behinders — Western Kentucky, Florida International, UTEP, Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee State. A five-team conference is not enough bids to get an automatic bid in any NCAA Tournament sport.

That conference is in this state because fellow FBS bottom-feeder, the Sun Belt Conference gobbled up Southern Miss (official on Tuesday) and is expected to also steal Old Dominion and Marshall from the husk of C-USA. The Sun Belt is also expected to invite FCS power James Madison.

That last bit is worth paying attention to because this is where it starts to come home for fans in our neck of the woods.

C-USA is clinging for life. There aren't many FBS options left for them. When this happens, the fertile fields desperate conferences go to are to the FCS Division, where they try to hook the latest sucker into thinking there's a pot of football gold at the end of the rainbow.

Sure enough, rumors were out there on Monday that Missouri State is a possible option for C-USA. It's not a surprise at all because Missouri Valley Football Conference schools were mentioned during the last round of realignment in the early 2010s. 

The Sun Belt was so desperate that they even kicked the tires on Indiana State, which then-ISU AD Ron Prettyman confirmed to the Tribune-Star at the time. It was probably no more than a courtesy check-in — ISU, then and now, is nowhere near ready for FBS football, the state of Memorial Stadium alone is a disqualifying demerit — but it goes to show how far conferences will go to maintain survival.

Naturally, Missouri State's mention in these rumors gets its fans fired up. The media in Springfield, Mo. has already addressed it — mostly from a positive point of view. People always assume bigger is better.

Is it, though? I've never thought it made much sense at all.

There are benefits, but benefits that have consequences. You get a higher payout for buy games. ISU was paid $500,000 to play at Northwestern in September. Ohio University, from the Mid-American Conference, was paid $900,000 to play in Evanston later in the month.

There are potential bowl payouts. There is usually a media payout, though C-USA's media deal (and exposure) is easily the worst among FBS leagues, still, it's more lucrative than the MVC/MVFC's deal.

Sounds great, doesn't it! Problem is? Most of that money is sucked straight back into the costs of doing business at the FBS level.

Salaries are far higher and coaching staffs are bigger. The recruiting budget has to be increased to stay competitive. Those bowl payouts? Often shared among conference members and sometimes pared down to fulfill a required ticket allotment from the organizer. Many schools lose money on bowl games, according to a 2020 USA Today story, 10 to 20 schools come out financially behind.

Most schools count scholarships as a cost. FBS football offers 18 more scholarships over FCS. That's means 18 more you have to account for elsewhere to be Title IX compliant.

In a geographic freak show that C-USA will be, the costs of transporting other sports sky-rockets. The longest conference trip Missouri State currently has is to Valparaiso. There are only three conference trips inside C-USA that would be shorter for the Bears.

Oh, and your other sports, like Missouri State's excellent women's basketball team and much-improved men's team? Enjoy one-bid hell in the shell of what's left of C-USA.

Then, you have to consider what you're jumping into purely from a football standpoint. Take it from someone who's an alum of a low-end Next Five school — it ain't all that.

My alma mater had its greatest season in 2008. Ball State was ranked in the top 25. It was undefeated in the regular season before it was upset in the conference championship game. The reward for that? A trip to a Jan. 6 bowl game in Mobile, Ala. that absolutely no one cared about. And even if the conference title had been won, the reward would have been a trip to another non-entity bowl game in Toronto.

All of that cost. All of the sacrifice. For that? And that season had virtually no staying power. Attendance reverted back to the announced low 10,000s (truthfully, more like high four-figures) in no time flat. Enthusiasm waned as quickly as it waxed.

At least in FCS, you have a playoff and a championship to aspire to. At the bell end of FBS? You basically exist to create off-time programming for ESPN and Fox. Say hello to mid-week games that are terrible for long-time ticketholders and for fans who want something to do on a Saturday. 

I think of at least three other sports at Missouri State — men's basketball, women's basketball and baseball — before I do football in terms of both success and fan interest. Crowds at Plaster Stadium will peak at times, but I've been down there when the stadium was an empty as ours is at its worst.

The best place for Missouri State is where it is — in the Missouri Valley Conference — where it's established itself as a respected member in multiple sports, including its flagship basketball programs. It makes geographic sense and it's cost-effective. 

Mad Max put it best it best in Fury Road. "That's bait," he said upon seeing an obvious trap. I hope Missouri State and its fans (and those at other MVC schools that might be tempted) realize that they're the marks the desperate FBS dregs are trying to sucker. C-USA grass isn't greener, it's the crab grass of FBS conferences.

Sometimes, the best move to make is to not make one at all.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or todd.golden@tribstar.com. Follow Golden on Twitter at @TribStarTodd.

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Todd Aaron Golden has been Sports Editor and Indiana State beat writer since September 2004. Born in Milwaukee but an Indiana resident most of his adult life, he previously worked in Jeffersonville, Columbus and Eau Claire, Wis.